Nurses Sarah Leal and Kayla Hilles appear on CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow

Two Cox Medical Center Branson nurses appeared on CNN Friday, July 23, to talk about the COVID-19 outbreak in Branson and Taney County, and the impact the outbreak has had on the staff’s physical and mental health.

Kayla Hilles and Sarah Leal appeared on CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and answered questions regarding the ages of those who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and how many of those patients have been given the COVID-19 vaccine.

The duo told Branson Tri-Lakes News they were nervous to be on worldwide television.

“It was very nerve-wracking for me because I’ve never done anything like that,” Leal said.  “But we had a feeling of responsibility to share our stories and push people to make the right decision.”

“We’re doing anything we can do to help,” Hilles said.  “If that could have helped one person, if it can keep one family member from dying, it would be worth it.”

Hilles and Leal said they never thought when entering the nursing field they would end up in a situation where they would be interviewed by a television news network because they were on the front lines of a viral outbreak.

“We do our best to take care of patients and we’re always patient advocates,” Leal said.  “A huge part of what we do is advocate for our patients.”

“But now our advocacy ability has spread out into the community,” Hilles said.

“People we aren’t responsible for, we feel responsible for,” Leal said.  “If we don’t do something now, we’re going to be taking care of them later.”

The pair agreed that sometimes it feels like they’re in a real life horror movie.

“You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring and you don’t know what’s around the corner,” Hilles said.  

Hilles said many people don’t understand that at times staff can be so short, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the workload. 

“At times there’s so much stuff going on,” Hilles said.  “We have six COVID ICU beds and sometimes there are just two of us who are having to cover all six of those beds.  We “team nurse” a lot and communicate without having to say anything and that’s what can allow us to be so effective.  But sometimes all six patients need our attention at the same time and it can feel like a horror movie.”

The duo said another factor people don’t understand is once they enter the COVID area to work, they can’t leave except to use the restroom.

“Once we’re in the COVID doors for the day, we’re in there,” Leal said.  “We can’t get our own food, we can’t go out and get our own water, we can’t go outside and breathe fresh air.  We can’t do anything.  We’re in that COVID ward from the moment we arrive until we change clothes to go home.”

Leal said the isolation of the ward can at times feel like a prison, not only for Cox staff, but also for the patients who are cut off from most contact with their families or loved ones.

“You look through the ward doors and you realize the patients can’t even make it into the hallway,” Leal said.  “Their oxygen tubing is almost like their ball and chain. If people could see what we see every day, perhaps they’d change their mind about being vaccinated.”

“The patients see maybe five people a day, for about five minutes,” Hilles said.  “They see (nurses) the most, and we’re there maybe 20 minutes at a time.”  

Both Hilles and Leal said one of the things that hits their mental health the hardest is having to be the entire emotional support for the patients because their families can’t enter the COVID ward.

“They have nobody else but us,” Hilles said. “When they’re upset, we’re there. When they’re scared, we’re there.  When they’re hurting, we’re there. When they just need somebody to hold their hand while they’re crying or they’re trying to breathe, because they know the next steps aren’t going to be any easier than where they are right now, we’re the ones that are there for them.

“We’re the ones who see that look of fear in their eyes as they’re trying to breathe and know they’re going to have to go on a ventilator. They’re struggling with the bi-pap and they look at us so helpless and scared and desperate. It is like a prison for all of us, I think.”

Hilles said while many people will say they support the front line workers, nurses and other medical staff see the comments from those who dismiss vaccinations and insult the medical professionals who advocate for them.

“As Sarah said in the CNN interview, nurses were shown to be the most trusted profession, or voted the most trusted profession for years,” Hilles said.  “Now that we’re saying here’s what you need to do, here’s how you can be most safe, we see things on social media about how it’s propaganda, they’re being paid by the government, I saw one that said we’re idiots putting tracking devices in everyone.”

“We don’t have time to sit there and explain organic chemistry (to everyone),” Hilles continued. “You have to at some point trust the people who know more than you about this situation, about healthcare. Listen to the physicians, listen to the nurses. You would if you had diabetes. You would if you had cancer. This is the same thing. We’re not promoting something to harm you. We’re not trying to harm you, we’re trying to save your life.”

“And we’re not asking you to do anything we haven’t done,” Leal said.

The full CNN interview is available on Facebook.


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